Today, a car honoring the victims of the Newtown massacre qualified for this Sunday's 55th running of the Daytona 500, a highly anticipated event watched by 13.5 million Americans every year. The car, driven by two-time Daytona champion Michael Waltrip and fielded by the Swan Racing Company, is #26 in honor of the 26 victims of the Newtown massacre.
The question for NASCAR fans everywhere is whether this year's Daytona will be a race to commemorate the past or one that will help drive our country toward a safer future.
This could be just the occasion for Waltrip, along with his fellow drivers, to stand with their millions of devoted fans and demand real substantive policy reform. On the Swan Racing website, it says explicitly that Waltrip racing the #26 car is intended to "raise awareness." What could be more important than raising awareness about the crucial legislation working its way through backrooms of the U.S. Congress?
So far both Waltrip and his sponsors have been silent on the issue of gun control reform, as well as specific legislation that could help prevent mass shootings like Newtown: universal background checks, closing the gun show loop hole, and a ban on assault weapons.
But Waltrip -- and NASCAR executives -- should end that silence.
I applaud Waltrip's sponsor, Swan Racing Company, for donating $50,000 to a fund to help the victims of Newtown, but the survivors of that tragedy would be much better served by tough legislation that could help prevent massacres like this in the future. Waltrip and NASCAR can deliver that legislation to the victims of Newtown this Sunday when the eyes of "real America" are turned to the racetrack. The overlap between NASCAR fans, the NRA and the Republican Party is obvious. Groups like the Mayors Against Illegal Guns were trotting out celebrity backers of gun control laws just days after the shooting. But the constituents who matter to the Republican lawmakers standing in the way of gun control legislation are more interested in Kyle Busch than Chris Rock.
Remember, the problem is not public opinion per se. Rather, the problem is re-connecting what "real Americans" want with what Republican politicians do; and simultaneously disconnecting the all-powerful NRA from their stranglehold on these same politicians. 92 percent of Americans -- that's red, blue, and every thing in between -- support implementing background checks. Even in households that own guns, that figure is 91 percent. Moreover, most Americans support a ban on the sale of assault weapons AND support a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines. The majority of gun owners, NASCAR fans, and military families have previously expressed support for a ban on assault weapons. About 74 perecnt of NRA members themselves favor universal background checks. The trick is to translate this support into pressure on Republican lawmakers. And seriously, what better place to stage a political showdown than Florida?
In a particularly ironic twist, at last year's Daytona 500, car #26 was sponsored by former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, an avowed pro-gun supporter. He received an A+ rating from the NRA, voted 'no' on background checks at gun shows, voted 'yes' to selling guns without trigger locks, voted against an assault weapons ban, and once declared during ABC's This Week:
"Having a gun and gun ownership is part of how people can feel safer. I think we should stick to our guns."
There are 75 million NASCAR fans (out of 300+ million people in the whole country). This year could be one of the most viewed Daytona 500s ever, making it an especially attractive venue for a powerful statement of change. Many will tune in just for the sake of seeing the lovely Danica Patrick, the first woman to win a pole position at the Daytona 500. She had the fastest racing time during the qualifying rounds for the event and has secured the top starting spot -- front row on the inside portion of the track -- for Sunday's race.
NASCAR is the country's second biggest sport, and Sunday's Daytona 500 is a decidedly American affair. It could be one of the most important moments for gun control reform too.